What Do I Stand For? Finding My Voice With Mr. C

by | May 9, 2018

By: Rainesford Stauffer

The teacher who made the biggest impact on me is someone with whom I passionately disagree.

That isn’t an exaggeration; our political viewpoints divide so sharply, I sometimes squirm in my seat reading what the teacher I admire most shares to social media. I find myself composing elaborate arguments in opposition to his point of view in my head, on runs, and when procrastinating at work. I plot the sources I would cite, the examples I would reference, and huff and puff, exasperated that someone could ignore the other side of an issue, the side that to me, is blatantly the right one.

Then, I pause. And I realize these things I am doing in rebuttal to his point of view— the unbridled belief in a certain side, the philosophizing on humanity’s connection to every issue, the crafting of an argument, the intensity of research — are the very things he taught me.

When I first took a class with Mr. C, my academic situation was unusual to say the least; I was training to be a ballet dancer, commuting an hour each way to dance. While I was technically homeschooled, the bulk of my education was through an online academy that counted logic and Latin as core classes. My freshman year, I was injured, and suddenly, my identity was ripped from me. I had always been Rainesford, the dancer. Every friend I had tied into that ballet studio. Every pursuit that piqued my interest involved a backstage. Every talent I had, in my opinion, was tethered to the ballet barre.

Enter Mr. C.

I once heard it stated that the best teachers don’t simply teach a subject; they teach you something about yourself. I would take that one step further: The best teachers teach you to learn something about yourself. They don’t hand you a pivotal, personal lesson; they encourage and enable you to discover it for yourself.

The first class I had with Mr. C was a literature course rooted in the art of the short story, and our first assignment was to write a five-paragraph analysis of The Piece of String by Guy de Maupassant. I’ll never forget how many corrections crowded the margins of my dismal first draft — it had enough red marks to pass as a Christmas decoration. I complained to my mom that I despised this class and that I was awful at English.

In every class discussion, three lines became shovels by which Mr. C forced us to dig deeper:

“What’s being argued here?”

“Go further.”

“What do you stand for?”

For Mr. C, it wasn’t enough to have read the book. Coming to class armed with an opinion you were prepared to defend was a must, and developing connections between the reading, the rest of the world, and your own life were vital elements of every discussion. After each class, it felt as though the confines of my brain had been stretched a little further, and after a few months, a new feeling took hold: Exhilaration.

I realized I loved debating issues in class and arguing over themes, constantly reassessing to develop the most articulate way to express my point of view. I was infatuated when Mr. C managed to link Jane Austen to Paris Hilton in regard to female protagonists and mainstream media. I was fascinated by the way so many of the themes we found between the lines of literature manifested themselves in so much else.

It was November when I turned in my midterm paper on Jack London’s To Build a Fire. This time, there was only one note scribbled in red: “Rainesford, you’re a writer.”

Despite my telling him much later, when I had graduated high school, that he had changed my life, I am not sure Mr. C knew the extent to which that simple note would shift everything, from my passion to my view of myself as a human being. That is, perhaps, one of the most incredible things about great teachers: Have you ever met more selfless people? They hand us fresh lenses through which to view ourselves, they encourage creative thought in ways we didn’t realize we were capable of, they push for the prowess of exploration, investigation, and imagination. And they do it without expecting anything in return. They just assume we will go out into the world and pay it forward, using the skills and talents developed in their classrooms to make the world a bit better than we found it.

That’s what he taught me to do. As maudlin as it sounds, (I believe if he were to read this, he’d refer to the sentimentality as “cliché”), I am who I am because of him. In one respect, that’s literal: I majored in Literature and the Liberal Arts in college, where analysis, reading, and writing were cornerstones of all my academic endeavors. I would never have published writing had he not given me the possibility of a new dream to chase.

But the less tangible side of his impact means even more. He said once during class “we aren’t separate from the things we love.” There are so many ways to interpret that statement, but at its root, it means that everything is connected to everything else, if we only seek to find the overlapping threads.

To Mr. C, there was only ever one acceptable approach: Going in wholeheartedly and rampantly curious, with a mind open enough to entertain new ideas and conviction strong enough to sustain what matters deeply to you, knowing that your actions, beliefs, and dreams stood to serve a higher purpose and relate to far more than just you and you alone.

We were discussing humanity as a theme in a novel once, and he described it thusly: “A few years ago, there was an ice storm in Kentucky. The streets were slick, all the stoplights were out, and still — I came across a four-way stop, and everyone proceeded as though the lights were there, watching out for each other. That’s humanity. It’s subtle, and it is always there.”

That’s the best way I can describe his impact on my life: subtle, and always there, in everything.

ABOUT THE PRICHARD COMMITTEE

Since 1983, the Prichard Committee has worked to study priority issues, inform the public and policy makers about best practices and engage citizens, business leaders, families, students, and other stakeholders in a shared mission to move Kentucky to the top tier of all states for education excellence and equity for all children, from their earliest years through postsecondary education.

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